Italian director Leone–working under the Americanized name of Bob Robertson–directed the small-budgeted
One of Leone’s innovations for
In the pair of heroes, neither sure of the other, Leone offers a kind of a proto-buddy cop movie. The entire opening ten minutes shows Mortimer on the trail of an outlaw with a price on his head so we get to know him, and that’s followed immediately by a further ten minutes showing Monco’s brand of more in-your-face outlaw chasing. When they finally meet and realize they’re after the same bounty, we get a prolonged show of machismo, where neither wants to kill the other necessarily. Monco shows off his skill with a pistol, while Mortimer is able to patiently wait to show off his skill with a ranged weapon. It’s a near-wordless exchange which sees both men with hats full of bullet holes by the end.
But I mentioned a character trio, and the third prong of that trifecta would have to be pretty strong to offset a pair of icons like this. And he is; easily the film’s most bombastic character is the bandit leader, El Indio, played by Gian Maria Volonté, who’d portrayed the bad guy in
Morricone wrote only about 17 minutes of original music for the film, but like
It’s also through Indio that we get most of the film’s plot. After a daring prison escape early in the movie, he takes up with his old gang to rob the heavily guarded safe in the Bank of El Paso. In order for the uneasy partnership of Monco and Mortimer to work–with tens of thousands of Old West dollars in the balance–they’ll have to infiltrate the gang, but that leads to the most fascinating part of the film, that involving pocket watches, chimes, and a strange flashback.Indio has a pocket watch that we first see in a scene where he’s murdered a man’s family simply to make the man angry and desperate enough to duel him. The watch plays a haunting chime and once the chime finishes, they draw. Following Indio’s easy victory, he tokes up and we see the first in a series of flashbacks depicting a much younger Indio looking into the bedroom window of a man and a woman. The woman has given her man a gift of a pocket watch. Later on, as the story progresses, we see more of this flashback, which involves Indio killing the man and attempting to rape the woman. We won’t know for almost the entire run of the film, but this ties directly into Mortimer and his dogged pursuit of Indio.
With a plot as well structured as this, and lead characters as compelling and well-drawn as this, Leone is then able to stage some of the finest action and suspense set pieces of the genre. Leone’s westerns are all about delaying the moment of violence, ramping up the tension like a coiled spring until it inevitably explodes. One amazing sequence has Indio’s gang casing the bank while Monco and Mortimer each watch from separate vantage points. They count how long it takes for the bank’s guards to walk around the building. The scene cuts around from giant faces in the foreground and the tiny guards in the background, until finally they use dynamite to steal the safe itself and ride off.
It wouldn’t be a western without duels and
The movie ends with Mortimer calling out Indio for the final duel, but Mortimer’s gun has been shot out of his hand, meaning Indio has the advantage. Gleefully he begins his pocket watch chime and Mortimer seems sunk, until Monco brings up a second pocket watch and a rifle. Walking over to Mortimer, he gives his tenuous partner his pistol. This may be the final duel between Mortimer and Indio, but Monco is there to referee, to make sure the better man wins fair and square.
Kino Lorber is releasing a beautiful 4K restoration of the film on Blu-ray on March 26. It includes both the uncut International release version and the original American release version. The release also features hours and hours of supplemental material in the form of interviews and featurettes, as well as two commentary tracks, one by Leone’s biographer, Sir Christopher Frayling, and the other a new one by the excellent film historian Tim Lucas.